Career & Practice

Working remotely is now a top priority, says new ABA report highlighting lasting shifts in practice of law

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Young lawyers feel so strongly about remote work that 44% of them would leave their current jobs for a greater ability to work remotely elsewhere, according to a new report the ABA released Wednesday.

Where Does the Legal Profession Go from Here? is based on input from nearly 2,000 ABA members who responded to a survey in May and June about how they are practicing today and what they expect from their employers and careers in the future. Commissioned by the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward, it follows an initial report from April 2021 that explored how members were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This survey is really a follow-up to see how things changed over the course of these last two years in terms of how lawyers are practicing, how we think they are going to continue to practice and while people think COVID is over, our data shows there has been a real shift in terms of how lawyers want to work in the future,” says Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg, a principal with the Chicago-based Red Bee Group, which designed and managed the survey.

In addition to remote work, the latest report shares members’ views on stress; diversity, equity and inclusion; lawyer mobility and technology. It also offers feedback on resources provided by the ABA and outlines best practices legal employers can use to recruit and retain diverse lawyers.

Majority of lawyers still working remotely, ABA report finds

According to the ABA’s report, 87% of lawyers say their workplaces allow them to work remotely.

Nearly two-thirds of lawyers in private practice can work remotely 100% of the time or have the flexibility to choose their own schedule, while 23% are required to work in the office one to three days a week. More than half of in-house lawyers can work remotely 100% of the time or make their own schedule, and 32% must work one to three days in the office.

Government lawyers have the least flexibility, with only 32% reporting they are fully remote or choose their own schedule.

Bobbi LiebenbergBobbi Liebenberg is a principal with the Red Bee Group, which designed and managed the survey.

“You are still seeing this really strong desire to work remotely, and I think that is buttressed by another data point—the majority of lawyers reported that remote work hadn’t adversely impacted the quality of their work, their productivity or billable hours,” says Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia. “This was particularly true for women lawyers, 56% of whom reported that remote work actually increased their ability to balance work and family obligations.”

While most lawyers say remote or hybrid work had either no adverse impact on or increased their ability to deal with biases and focus on their mental health, many also report a decrease in professional networking and quality relationships with co-workers.

When asked about the future, 53% of lawyers believe it is unlikely they will continue working remotely through the rest of 2022 and 2023. While remote work remains important to young lawyers, only 13% of lawyers who have practiced for more than 40 years and 19% of lawyers who have practiced between 31 and 40 years would leave their current job for one that offers a greater ability to work remotely.

ABA report shines light on importance of workplace culture

Where Does the Legal Profession Go from Here? examines how shifts in work arrangements have impacted workplace culture.

When asked how their employers addressed racial justice and equity issues, 46% of lawyers say they issued statements of support and 47% say they fostered conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Only 29% report their employers launched a new program on racial justice and equity and 28% report their employers sponsored related pro bono work.

The ABA’s report also reveals that significant numbers of lawyers continue to face high levels of stress at work. According to the data, 34% of lawyers of color, 42% of female lawyers, 27% of LGBTQ+ lawyers and 48% of lawyers with a disability report feeling stressed.

“It’s consistent with our prior Practice Forward report, where we also showed high levels of stress because of [lawyers’] gender or race or ethnicity,” says Liebenberg, who co-authored both reports with Scharf Banks Marmor founding partner Stephanie Scharf. “A lot of these issues existed pre-pandemic, and I think the pandemic just exacerbated these conditions.”

“Why we’re so thankful the ABA has continued to do these Practice Forward reports is that the data is important in terms of how people are really feeling,” she adds. “You can anecdotally think this, but now we have hard data, which shows there really is a difference.”

The report notes a similar pattern in lawyers who feel they are perceived as less competent or unable to be their authentic selves at work. Just as disturbing, it adds, is that female lawyers, lawyers of color, LGBTQ+ lawyers and lawyers with a disability were more likely to receive demeaning or insulting comments.

Many lawyers consider work/life balance when choosing jobs, ABA report shows

Among its other findings, the ABA’s report discusses which factors lawyers consider most important when deciding to change jobs.

Sixty-eight percent of female lawyers and 44% of male lawyers believe better work/life balance is important. Similarly, 68% of lawyers of color and 51% of white lawyers find this factor important. A more welcoming and collaborative culture, increased compensation, ability to work remotely and better quality of work also rank high on the list for most lawyers.

Significant numbers of lawyers say it is important for employers to provide specific resources and activities, including implementation of written succession plans for leadership roles or transitioning clients, regular check-ins from group leaders and wellness and mental health resources.

The report notes that female lawyers, lawyers of color and lawyers with a disability are more likely than male lawyers, white lawyers and lawyers without a disability to consider these resources and activities important.

It additionally analyzed resources members requested from the ABA and identified some generational differences.

According to its data, 61% of lawyers say they would find CLEs and written materials about substantive areas of the law useful. Meanwhile, 42% would find information about the use of technology for remote working and information on planning for retirement useful.

However, when factoring in age, older ABA members tend to prefer resources about law firm technology, use of technology for remote working and planning for retirement. Younger ABA members, particularly those who are under 40, prefer resources related to mental health and wellbeing, ways to implement diversity and hybrid work models.

Both groups prefer hybrid events, which allow members to choose between attending CLEs, conferences and meetings in person or remotely, the report says.

ABA report provides best practices to help support lawyers

Where Does the Legal Profession Go from Here? offers several best practices to legal employers based on analysis of the survey’s results, including creating a culture that supports hybrid work; addresses wellness and mental health; encourages and fosters diversity, equity and inclusion; and maximizes the use of technology.

“Legal employers are at their peril if they don’t wake up and take this data into account because there are groups of lawyers who will leave if their workplaces don’t offer this type of culture,” Liebenberg says. “That was really striking. Culture matters, and legal employer leaders need to be intentional in thinking about the culture they create.”

Liebenberg adds that the ABA can also use the data to be “laser-focused” in how it meets the needs of all its members.

An ABA news release on the report is here. For complete results and more information, visit the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward website.

See also: “How should the legal profession navigate a post-COVID-19 world? ABA group has recommendations”

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